Do You Know Where Your Açaí Comes From?

Has the açaí trend hit your local supermarket yet? Five years ago, açaí was a niche item relegated to the hippie organic food aisle or the health food co-op. Now the fruit – or at least the flavor – is gracing everything from mainstream brands of cereal bars to frozen fruit pops.

Even talking about the trend is trendy: In the new indie movie The Kids Are All Right, a friend talking about his açaí and hemp milk smoothie is the last straw in Annette Benning’s character’s ability to listen to eco-babble over dinner.

The craze is based on the berry’s high concentration of antioxidants, amino acids and essential fatty acids. It’s often referred to as a “superfood” and regularly makes appearances on Top Ten lists of foods to better your health.

I’ve pretty much ignored the hype because frankly, I think that eating a balanced diet with tons of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is a better health strategy than seeking out one particular food. Also, it didn’t help that I had no idea how to pronounce the word. For the record, it’s three syllables – “ah-sigh-ee.”

But I recently spent a few weeks in the Amazon (and yes, the carbon footprint guilt is enormous) and got to see firsthand where açaí actually comes from and have my first taste of the pudding-like purple pulp mixed with sugar and crunchy tapioca.

Açaí berries grow high in the tops of palm trees in large groupings of branches. And in the indigenous village that I visited there was only one way up to the top: using your hands and feet. I watched as a villager looped a palm leaf around his feet to help grip the tree trunk then quickly shimmy up the at least 30-foot-high palm. He climbed with a knife in his mouth, which he then used to cut off the branch that was teeming with the small purple berries, and then slid back down the trunk. (The only thing more nerve-wracking than watching that was then watching a seven-year-old follow suit!)

There’s absolutely no better way to appreciate your food than to see where it actually grows and how it is produced. I didn’t know what açaí berries even looked like, much less that they are only found at the top of towering palm trees. And while I know that those particular açaí berries might not be the same ones on my supermarket shelves in Virginia, it was so great to see how it could generate income for the community without putting any additional pressure on the environment.

As was the case when I rode by hundreds of banana plantations in Costa Rica, seeing this process really opened my eyes to all that really goes into getting food to my plate.  I couldn’t help but think what seeing something like that would have done for me as a kid, when my mom regularly scraped my untouched vegetables into the trash can. Maybe I wouldn’t have LIKED eating the vegetables any more, but I doubt I would have let them go to waste the same way.

So load the kids up in the Prius this back-to-school season, and take a trip to the local apple orchard or pumpkin farm for an education about their food, their health, and the environment. (And if you don’t have kids, take yourself – there’s nothing wrong with a refresher course now and again.) After all, it’s a lot easier to care about the environment when you are reminded of all the things it provides.

Photo Credit: Young boy from the Açaízal Village in the Brazilian state of Amapá climbs an açaí palm. @Haroldo Palo Jr.

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  1. You recent spent a week in the “Amazon”? Brazil has enough competend highly qualified scientists and experts in all fields – therefore if you really are interested in doing you part to “reduce the carbon footprint”: STOP FLYING AROUND unless you have pressing personal need. Look all “Green Folks” – Brazil can manage its environment without you! Here is the message from President Lula da Silva, 22. June 2010 in Altamira/Para: “We know how to take care of our forests. No foreigner should stick his nose where he has not been called!” There is absolutely no further need for anybody from the U.S. to visit the Amazon for any reason – Brazil has its own experts and tourism is not the answer for sustainable development because of the energy waste in travel from the U.S. and around in the Amazon and the waste in infrastructer to accomodate tourists. The Amazon’s economy will consist of sustainable agriculture – including commercial farming for the native and the indigenous population, forestry by planned wood production, hydroelectric power, and controlled mining: The Amazon population – Mestizo and Ingenous want modern housing, schools, hospitals, jobs: The naked native in the “maloca” hut is largely today a fiction by U.S. film makers. (Although there are still “isolados” – Indigenous who have no contact with the outside: If they want it, the FUNAI will assist them, if they want to remain isolated – they are left isolated. But in the end, nobody wants to remain in the reality of the paleolitic era where babies that don’t seem “normal” are burried alive and other “traditions”…)

  2. Wow I never even knew that it grows on palm trees. I thought only coconuts grow on palm trees 🙂 Clearly I need to do my research.

  3. Re: Reader “San Francisco Hiking” – there are a variety of edible products growing on palm trees. In Costa Rica and other nations, a small, plum-sized nut is roasted and eaten like potatoes (can’t think of the name right now – but it sold everywhere in Costa Rica). Also of course the “dende” oil palm, is a major industry in tropical areas – for the production of edible oils. Brazil has announced a major dende forestation program for eastern Para State – to be initiated on “degraded” land – with other words cattle pasture that is exausted. And of course, the inner core of some palm trunks is edible as “heart of palm” – available canned in most U.S. supermarkets. (The coco palm is of course also a “dangerous” plant – killing people and damaging cars – from dropping nuts. That’s why you have to watch where you walk or park your car… Also the falling fronds – “pencas” in Spanish, of palms, especially Royal palm can injure.)

  4. This last comment makes a good point but is pretty harsh and does not address real problems.
    What consumers of this fruit should be asking is: How, tons of the Acai fruit to fill the US “organic market” is “produced” by individuals climbing up trees. Hello People! Technology is needed for the amount of acai produced, packaged and exported to the U.S and globally, not to mention within Brzail.
    More importantly, why are U.S. consumers paying so high a price for a product where locals “who are climbing trees” are barely benefiting. Where is the profit from this product going? Are local farmers/people benefiting and how is their environment actually doing?

  5. Acai is the best way to get maximum benefit of eating superfood, keeping a sustainable agriculture industry alive in brazil while still servicing outside interests in the production of a healthy eco-system globally, the Amazon provides 20 percent of earth’s oxygen and 20% of the fresh water re-entering the ocean.. this is the heart of the world and we need it healthy with trees not clear cutting!! Soy bean is out we want acai for natural medicine.

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